Sharon Astyk forwards to me a link to a massive and important new story in the new issue of The Atlantic, which speculates as to how the psychological scars of unemployment and underemployment (including a shaky job market) is likely to shape America. I strongly encourage you to read the article, especially before commenting on this thread. Here’s the gist:

“We haven’t seen anything like this before: a really deep recession combined with a really extended period, maybe as much as eight years, all told, of highly elevated unemployment,” Shierholz told me. “We’re about to see a big national experiment on stress.”

The piece, by Don Peck, gets into detail about the deep damage unemployment does to one’s feeling of self-worth, especially if one is male. That misery is spread out through families. Brad Wilcox, the UVA sociologist who studies marriage and family, predicts a coming wave of divorces related to current job loss, particularly because the job loss in this recession has fallen heavily on men, and because both men and women look at male job loss more critically. Anyway, Sharon draws my attention to his passage:

But “the timing of this recession coincides with a pretty significant cultural change,” Edin says: a fast-rising material threshold for marrying, but not for having children, in less affluent communities.
Edin explains that poor and working-class couples, after seeing the ravages of divorce on their parents or within their communities, have become more hesitant to marry; they believe deeply in marriage’s sanctity, and try to guard against the possibility that theirs will end in divorce. Studies have shown that even small changes in income have significant effects on marriage rates among the poor and the lower-middle class. “It’s simply not respectable to get married if you don’t have a job–some way of illustrating to your neighbors that you have at least some grasp on some piece of the American pie,” Edin says. Increasingly, people in these communities see marriage not as a way to build savings and stability, but as “a symbol that you’ve arrived.”
Childbearing is the opposite story. The stigma against out-of-wedlock children has by now largely dissolved in working-class communities–more than half of all new mothers without a college degree are unmarried. For both men and women in these communities, children are commonly seen as a highly desirable, relatively low-cost way to achieve meaning and bolster identity–especially when other opportunities are closed off. Christina Gibson-Davis, a public-policy professor at Duke University, recently found that among adults with no college degree, changes in income have no bearing at all on rates of childbirth.
“We already have low marriage rates in low-income communities,” Edin told me, “including white communities. And where it’s really hitting now is in working-class urban and rural communities, where you’re just seeing astonishing growth in the rates of nonmarital childbearing. And that would all be fine and good, except these parents don’t stay together. This may be one of the most devastating impacts of the recession.”

It gets worse. Go past the jump for more discussion of the impact.

“We could be headed in a direction where, among elites, marriage and family are conventional, but for substantial portions of society, life is more matriarchal,” says Wilcox. The marginalization of working-class men in family life has far-reaching consequences. “Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they’re happier and healthier.”
Communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time. Edin’s research team spent part of last summer in Northeast and South Philadelphia, conducting in-depth interviews with residents. She says she was struck by what she saw: “These white working-class communities–once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries–they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life, and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence. I hang around these neighborhoods in South Philadelphia, and I think, ‘This is beginning to look like the black inner-city neighborhoods we’ve been studying for the past 20 years.’ When young men can’t transition into formal-sector jobs, they sell drugs and drink and do drugs. And it wreaks havoc on family life. They think, ‘Hey, if I’m 23 and I don’t have a baby, there’s something wrong with me.’ They’re following the pattern of their fathers in terms of the timing of childbearing, but they don’t have the jobs to support it. So their families are falling apart–and often spectacularly.”

It should also be mentioned in any discussion of family life that earlier in this essay, Peck has a section about how today’s college graduates have completely unrealistic expectations of what life is like on the job market. The experts he interviews point to data showing these young adults expect to be exorbitantly well paid to do work they find interesting — the key word here being “expect,” not “hope.” This is because that entire generation has been raised to believe they’re uniquely special, and that the world is going to open up to them and give them whatever they want, just as their parents have done. They are in for a very, very rude shock — one that’s going to be especially jarring because their expectations were so unrealistic.

Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong, and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out–or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.

The point of my bringing in that last bit was not to lash the younger generation; it was rather to say that older generations have failed these kids by giving them an unrealistic view of themselves and the way the world works, and now we’re going to have to be prepared to help them when reality smacks them hard upside their collective head.

What I’d like this thread to be is a discussion on the way forward through what is likely to be a serious social crisis. Sharon herself thought the article was terrific, but (quite rightly, I think) loathes its conclusion: that the situation we face is so dire that the government should borrow more money to right the job market again. Sharon’s view is that we ought to work to build the “informal economy,” and not keep doing the sort of thing that’s got us in such a world of trouble in the first place.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that economic conditions dramatically shape the inner lives of individuals, and in turn the direction of a culture. I’ve often quoted Juvenal’s line about luxury being more destructive to a culture than war, because I see signs that our great material wealth, coupled with the loosening of religious and moral bonds that had once been held and affirmed by our culture, has been a force for decadence. I’m not talking about “decadence” as a falling-away from a certain ideal; I’m talking about decadence on a more concrete, practical level: as in, eroding the inner convictions it takes to endure hardship and privation with dignity and integrity, and even to thrive in conditions of adversity.
This Atlantic piece suggests pretty clearly that we are going to be paying a heavy price for the atomization and consumerization of our society and its approach to morality. There’s no use in traddies sitting back saying, “Uh huh, I told you so!” What good does that do anybody? What we need to do is figure out ways to protect our own families from the decay, and ways to help those who find themselves suffering and lost to right themselves, and to relearn and rebuild. The sort of decadent lumpenproletariat of angry, underemployed, boozing men, unattached women having children out of wedlock, and kids being socialized amid the chaos of the shattered family, does not bode well for this country, socially or politically.
Let’s keep the comments as constructive as we can, okay? I’m not going to tell you not to pin blame on this or that factor, but please let’s do so in the context of suggesting real solutions, or at least strategies that might help people keep their heads above water — spiritually, psychologically and otherwise — in the coming years.
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